Postponement Disappointment: John Atkinson, Swimming Canada Looking Ahead

Photo Courtesy: Swimming Canada / Ian MacNicol

With a data-driven approach, John Atkinson has helped Swimming Canada return to international prominence, particularly on the women’s side. But that doesn’t make the nation’s High Performance Director immune to the disappointment of seeing the 2020 calendar ruined by the outbreak of coronavirus.

Atkinson’s excitement was just building, watching swimmers go through their final preparations for Canadian Olympic Trials in Toronto, scheduled for last week. When the plug was pulled March 13, followed nine days later by the inevitable postponement of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021, Atkinson was just as drawn to the swirl of emotions.

“The high-performance center from Ontario came back from training in Florida, we were just two weeks from the start, and the other two centers were about to go onto what they call their taper camp, and they were all in the final preparation,” John Atkinson told Swimming World last Friday, on what would’ve been Day 5 of Trials. “Everything was going well, and people were hopeful, swimming their lap-time bests, and they were prepared for this elite trials, and then it was taken away. I think it was a feeling of somewhat shock. There’s frustration, there was some momentum, and all these are natural things to feel.

“So I feel disappointment for the athletes that they didn’t get to show what they had going forward, and you just have to be really understanding of the roller coaster of emotions in that particular instance and how do you then support them at that time and where they’re at now with the sport? What’s the right thing for them?”

That’s the challenge for Atkinson to pivot toward. He and his fellow Swimming Canada coaches are doing what they can to support athletes through the pandemic, assisting with any physical or emotional support they can. But eventually the page will turn to look at 2021 and beyond.

John Atkinson has revamped Swimming Canada since being hired in 2013 after more than a decade of success at British Swimming. His mission was geared toward the organization’s “Vision 2020” strategic plan, a long-term quest to identify and improve the nation’s top talents via a “targeted investment approach underpinned by analytics” (pdf). Atkinson’s approach is all about evidence-based steps, and it’s given rise to four robust national High Performance Centers (Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria and Montreal) to complement the network of college-based programs in Canada and the United States.


Canada’s bronze-winning 400 freestyle relay from the Rio Olympics: Taylor Ruck, Chantal Van Landeghem, Michelle Williams and Penny Oleksiak. Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

The results have been impressive, particularly on the women’s side. The 2012 Olympics was a dour one for Canada, with just three swimming medals, all on the men’s side: Bronze for Brent Hayden in the 100 freestyle, silver for Ryan Cochrane in the 1500 free and an open-water bronze via Richard Weinberger. The best women’s finish was fifth (Martha McCabe in the 200 breaststroke). Only one women’s relay and one men’s relay so much as made finals.

While the men’s program has regrouped in a generational shift that yielded no medals from Rio or either of the last two World Championships, the women have flourished. Penny Oleksiak’s gold in the 100 free in Rio highlighted four individual medals plus two relay bronzes. At the last two World Championships, Canadian women have combined for 10 medals, including three golds (two for Kylie Masse, one of Maggie MacNeil) and a clean sweep of relay bronzes at 2019 Worlds.

That’s the excitement that the program was deprived of at Trials, deferred until next summer at least.

The guiding force behind that growth, Atkinson said, is the team’s performance links, making sure that everyone is on the same page. While the High Performance Centers offer more direct oversight of training and non-swimming aspects (nutrition, sports medicine, etc.), Swimming Canada has come to respect the diffusion of its talent across the continent. Whether at Canadian or American universities or other clubs, Atkinson ensures everyone is pulling in the same direction.

That mindset is useful in times of crisis, too. Data collection from athletes and staff shifts toward generating health and safety instead of performance in the water. Atkinson has been in constant contact with coaches and athletes the last few weeks, conversations that he stresses are always two-way. He wants to get athletes the workout resources they need to stay in shape if they can’t train, to disseminate the latest government directives and to update their schedules amid the uncertainty. But he and others at Swimming Canada also get feedback on what the athletes need, especially in terms of support and mental-health resources. It offers athletes agency in the process, like a call with dozens of athletes last week where Masse and other leaders helped take charge of the communication network.

“We continue to look at how the athletes are responding, how they are feeling, letting them have a voice, letting them talk to whether it be their own coach or their performance coach with Swimming Canada, and see how we can help them,” John Atkinson said. “It’s going to be really, really critical and important.”

The input is part of the reason why the Canadian Olympic Committee was one of the leaders in saying that if the Tokyo Games weren’t moved from 2020, the Canadians wouldn’t attend, an announcement made two days before postponement and which Atkinson stood behind. Atkinson has advocated for FINA to push the World Championships to 2022, relieving the training and financial logjam of two major events next summer.

There’s a direct relationship between that decision and many of the athlete-focused choices Swimming Canada is trying to make. The removal of the Olympics from this summer, while the right thing to do for athlete and public safety, took away the event that had moored swimmers’ calendars for years. Such a loss can lead to a natural feeling of being adrift, something Atkinson and others are monitoring in athletes.

The sooner that some certainty in the schedule (around the obvious health requirements of the pandemic) can be imposed to restore that focus, the better.

“We know that we need to reset our goals with the mental-health staff, with the coaches, for each athlete and give them that path in the future,” John Atkinson said. “And when we get through the difficult weeks that are unfolding along the way and the peaks that will come at the same time with the pandemic of COVID-19 and where the emotions are coming through all that, then we can have a plan and refocus on things that happen next.”

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  1. avatar

    Well done Mate

  2. Jeremy Cooper

    Morning John, hope you and yours are safe and well my friend

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